Good morning, everyone, and thank you for coming this morning.
I would like to remind members that this meeting will be held in public today, so please remember that.
The purpose of the meeting today is to begin our discussions on Bill . We have a lot of ground to cover today, so I ask for the committee's diligence. We've invited the Government House Leader and his officials to appear today at this meeting. As well, we have invited the Chief Electoral Officer to appear following the minister.
I also remind the members that at our business meeting last week we agreed that the questioning rounds would be limited to five minutes. I will be watching and trying to assist committee members in keeping their questions short so that we can actually leave ample time for answers from the witnesses, as that, of course, is the point. As usual, our round of questioning will begin with the Liberals, then the Conservative Party, then the Bloc and the NDP, each having five minutes. We will certainly keep track, or try our very best to keep track, of members who have put up their hands. Please make sure you leave your hands up until either the clerk or I see you. That way we won't miss anyone at all.
The only other thing I want to mention is that we have divided the time. If necessary, the minister will have the first hour, if in fact that is needed, and be followed by Mr. Kingsley, who will take up the balance of time if that much time is necessary.
Finally, I'm going to ask for five minutes of committee time at the end to discuss future business.
That just gives you an idea of how I would like to conduct the business of the meeting today.
Without any further ado, I'd like to take this opportunity to welcome the Honourable Rob Nicholson. I appreciate your taking the time on such short notice.
As members know, Mr. Nicholson is the Leader of the Government in the House of Commons and . He is also, of course, the sponsor of Bill . Minister, I thank you very much for taking time out of your busy schedule to appear before the committee today to discuss Bill C-16. I would like to ask you to start by introducing your team. Then, by all means, go on with your opening statement, and we'll follow that with questions.
Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman.
With me are Warren Newman, who is general counsel for constitutional and administrative law; Kathy O'Hara, deputy secretary to the cabinet, machinery of government; and Dan McDougall, director of operations, legislation and House planning.
Good morning, colleagues. I'm very pleased to appear before your committee to talk about Bill relating to fixed election dates. I will begin by describing the present system for calling general elections and I will mention some of the difficulties it creates.
I also want to talk about why the government chose to draft the bill the way it did, and why the route we took was both necessary and effective.
Finally, I would be happy to respond to any questions.
Today, as you know, it is the prerogative of the Prime Minister whose government has not lost the confidence in the House of Commons to select what he or she regards as a propitious time for an election to renew the government's mandate. The Prime Minister then requests dissolution of the House from the Governor General, and if the Governor General agrees, he or she proclaims the date of the election.
What we have is a situation where the Prime Minister is able to choose the date of the general election--not necessarily what is in the best interests of the country, but conceivably what is in the best interests of his or her party. Bill will address this situation and produce a number of other benefits.
As set out in the government's platform, this bill is modelled after existing provincial fixed-date elections legislation. The legislation is similar to the approach used by British Columbia, Ontario, and Newfoundland and Labrador. British Columbia just had its first fixed-date election on May 17, 2005. Ontario, and Newfoundland and Labrador, will soon have their fixed-date elections October 4, 2007, and October 9, 2007 respectively.
In British Columbia, there was certainly no evidence of what some critics have called a lame-duck government, and certainly no evidence that the legislation was in some way illusory or ineffective.
The government's bill provides that the date for the next general election will be Monday, October 19, 2009. Of course, this will be the date only if the government is able to retain the confidence of the House until that time. This bill does not affect the powers of the Governor General to call an election sooner if a government loses the confidence of the House. For example, if the government were to be defeated tomorrow, a general election would be held according to normal practice; however, the subsequent election would be scheduled for the third Monday in October in the fourth calendar year after the next election. That is the normal model that would be established by this bill. General elections would occur on the third Monday of October in the fourth calendar year following the previous general election.
We chose the third Monday in October because it was the date that was likely to maximize voter turnout and the least likely to conflict with cultural or religious holidays or elections in other jurisdictions. This raises an additional feature of the bill that I want to bring to your attention, which provides for an alternate election date in the event of a conflict with a date of religious or cultural significance, or an election in another jurisdiction.
In the current system, the date of the general election is chosen by the government, so it is rare that a polling date is chosen that comes into conflict with a date of cultural or religious significance, or with elections in other jurisdictions. However, with the introduction of legislation providing for fixed-date elections, there is some possibility that in the future the stipulated election date will occasionally be the same as a day of cultural or religious significance, or an election in another jurisdiction.
The Ontario fixed-date elections legislation provides that if there is a conflict with a day of cultural or religious significance, the Chief Elections Officer may recommend an alternative polling date to the Lieutenant Governor in Council up to seven days following the date that would otherwise be the polling date.
Using a variation of the Ontario legislation providing for fixed-date elections, our bill empowers the Chief Electoral Officer to recommend an alternate polling day to the Governor in Council should he or she find that the polling date is not suitable for that purpose. The alternate date would be either the Tuesday or the Monday following the Monday that would otherwise be the polling date. Allowing alternate polling days to be held on the following Tuesday or Monday is consistent with the current federal practice of holding elections on a Monday or a Tuesday.
Fixed-date elections will provide numerous benefits to our political system. With fixed-date elections the timing of general elections will be known to all, which will provide for greater fairness. Instead of the governing party having the advantage of determining when the next election will take place and being the single party that may know for up to several months when it will occur, all parties will be on an equal footing.
Another key advantage of fixed-date elections is that this measure will provide transparency as to when general elections will be held. Rather than decisions about election dates being made behind closed doors, general election dates will be public knowledge. I think they will allow for improved governance. For example, fixed-date elections will allow for better parliamentary planning. Members of parliamentary committees will be able to set their agendas well in advance, which will make the work of committees and Parliament as a whole more efficient.
Another reason for adopting fixed-date elections is that this measure will likely improve voter turnout because elections will be held in October, except when a government loses the confidence of the House. The weather is generally favourable in most parts of the country at that time of year, and fewer people are transient. So for example, most students will not be in transition between home and school at that time and will be able to vote. Moreover, seniors will not be deterred from voting, as they might in some of the colder months.
Now, it should be noted that the weekend before the third Monday in October is Thanksgiving weekend. This would be the weekend of advance voting, as advance voting is set in the Canada Elections Act for the tenth, ninth, and seventh days before polling day. That would be the Friday, the Saturday, and the Monday prior to the election date. I believe that having Canadians discussing the general election during part of a Thanksgiving weekend is not a bad thing. And if some Canadians wish to spend a few minutes voting in advance polls that weekend, all the better.
For your information, only 10.5% of those who voted in 2006 voted in the advance polls, while 2.8% voted either at a returning office or by postal ballot. The vast majority of voters, 86.7% in 2006, cast their votes on polling day. So those who would have to staff the advance polls, which are open from noon until 8 p.m. in fewer than 3,000 locations, would be aware of this responsibility before they accepted the position.
Some members have indicated that the bill is illusory in that the Prime Minister can call an election at any point up until the fixed election date. All I can say is that this view does not reflect the way our system of responsible government actually works. The Prime Minister has to retain his or her prerogative to advise dissolution to allow for situations when the government loses the confidence of the House. This is a fundamental principle of our system of responsible government.
It has been suggested that the government should insert a clause into Bill C-16 constraining the Prime Minister's ability to request dissolution of Parliament to certain circumstances. Let me be clear. Including a clause that attempts to constrain the Prime Minister in requesting dissolution of Parliament would, in our view, present a risk, which we should not ignore, that the legislation would be found unconstitutional if challenged in the courts. Why? Under the rules and conventions of responsible government, the Governor General's power to dissolve Parliament has to be exercised on the advice of the Prime Minister. The Governor General's legal power under the Constitution and the exercise of that power on the advice of the Prime Minister are fundamentally and inseparably linked. If one limits the Prime Minister's ability to advise, one risks constraining the Governor General's powers in a way that would be unconstitutional.
An amendment in relation to the powers of the Office of the Governor General would require, of course, the consent of the Houses of Parliament and of the legislative assemblies of all provinces, and I think with respect to this piece of legislation, it is unnecessary and unwanted.
It has also been suggested that governments should insert a clause into Bill C-16 that would define very specifically what constitutes a vote of confidence. This would, it is argued, prevent governments from engineering their own defeat in minority situations. Again, constraining the Prime Minister's power to advise the dissolution of Parliament except in certain circumstances would risk being declared unconstitutional and fettering the Governor General's powers. Moreover, if the bill were to attempt to define confidence or to provide criteria for when confidence is lost, the whole concept of confidence itself would risk becoming justiciable in the courts, something that would run contrary to the fundamental constitutional principle of the separation of powers between the legislative, executive, and judicial branches and the appropriate role of the courts in our constitutional system of parliamentary democracy.
The government has followed the broad approach of British Columbia, Newfoundland and Labrador, and Ontario, which is an approach that works. If one looks for other examples within the British parliamentary system where fixed-date elections are in place, such as New Zealand, Scotland, and Wales, none of them has provisions like the ones that have been suggested by certain members at second reading.
The government is committed to making this modest but important change to improve Canadian democratic institutions and practices, but this change must be done in a way that is respectful of our Constitution, our great heritage, and the principles of responsible government.
In conclusion, I would like to point out that the third week in October is National Citizenship Week in this country, a time when we celebrate what it means to be a citizen of Canada. It is fitting, then, that the general election date will be set for the third Monday in October--a most fitting and functional expression of our citizenship.
Fixed-date elections will provide for greater fairness, increased transparency and predictability, improved policy planning, and, I believe, increased voter turnout. In June of this past year, Ipsos Reid released the results of a poll that showed 78% of Canadians support government's plans to provide for fixed-date elections. I hope you will join me in voting in favour of this important and widely supported measure.
Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
I don't think there would be a conflict between Thanksgiving and the date of the federal election, since Thanksgiving is the second Monday in October.
Getting back to the first part of your question, we looked at the different seasons and the different months in which an election could be held. We used a process of elimination. There were valid reasons why we might not want to have it in winter or the summer, so that leaves you with the spring and the fall. There is the estimates process, during which estimates are tabled in the House of Commons, and there is the studying and the budgetary process of the Government of Canada. It seemed to suggest that the fall would be a better time.
That being said, the department considered all reasons that this might not be a good date in terms of various religious or cultural feast days, or holidays, or days of recognition. It seemed to me that this one in particular would work. I have indicated to you that there is some flexibility. If some time in the future there is some reason why that Monday wouldn't be perfect, the Chief Electoral Officer could recommend that it be moved to the Tuesday or to the following week.
That being said, because of the provisions of the act, the advance poll would take place approximately one week before that, which would mean at Thanksgiving. Quite frankly, I can't think of a better time to find Canadians at home if they have to vote in the advance poll. If they're not going to be home on election day, it's probably highly likely that in fact they might be there on the Thanksgiving weekend. Our job is to facilitate Canadians' voting, which they have a right to do, and to make it as accessible and easy as possible. So I think having an advance poll would work, and I think that was one of the other advantages of this piece of legislation.
We wouldn't want to go any further into the year, in case the suggestion to do so is made. If we made it one week later, you could have the conflict that you had last year, for instance, with Halloween. We wouldn't want the chaos that might result on Canadian streets, with millions of people going out in their cars, and kids going door to door, and that sort of thing. This date seems to work, and I hope it's the one that Parliament will accept.
Thank you, Mr. Chair, and thank you to our guests.
I will just state for the record that as a party we support this. In fact, it was part of the ethics package of my predecessor, Mr. Broadbent. We're still looking for a couple of other things, such as floor crossing, and in fact the whole idea of real democratic reform and proportional representation, but we'll save that for another day.
Let's turn to Bill . There's a paper attached to my package from the Library of Parliament about the history of the private members' bills vis-à-vis fixed election dates. It provides some interesting ideas, and one of them in fact is from our very own Prime Minister. I guess this dilemma we have is whether we are going to deal with the C word--not wanting to open up the Constitution. I think most people would concur that it probably wouldn't be helpful to open up the Constitution to get this done. But I think if you take a look at Mr. Rowland's private member's bill in 1970, the concerns that have been presented before us are addressed.
I'm wanting this to go through, and I'm supporting the bill, but do we actually believe there is a point where we will deal with the constitutional reform? Does that need to be done in the future? If we do this, at some point could we take a look at that? Would it be possible? I'll leave that to you.
The second thing I would ask is how this affects the government's plans for Senate reform.
Third, please explain to us...because I don't think this should be called fixed election dates, they are flexible fixed election dates. Mr. Milner provided that language. I think it's important that we say that, because it confuses the electorate. They think, oh, no matter what, we'll have these fixed dates. That will undermine the idea of the minority Parliament.
My last point is that citizens should understand that you won't have a campaign for four years, that there will be some boundaries around when you're allowed to start campaigning. Perhaps you can give us some insight into that, because I think a lot of people are quite rightly concerned that we'll have campaigns going on forever--and no one, not even us, would like that.
Thank you, Mr. Minister, and to your officials, for appearing today.
First, I want to say, maybe in response to 's comment that he's still looking for real democratic reform, that this is real democratic reform. I had the misfortune of sitting in Canada's Parliament and listening to some things over the last 13 years that certainly upset and annoyed me in the field of democratic reform. I remember the former Prime Minister, the Right Honourable Paul Martin, saying that he refused to initiate some reforms because they would have been piecemeal. In my opinion, any reform is worthwhile, and this is an important step forward. So I congratulate you for bringing it forward, and certainly the Prime Minister for making this attempt at this point—it's only an attempt to relinquish some of the power and control, which he has willingly relinquished.
As Mr. Dewar noted, we are also pursuing some Senate reform, the limitations on terms for senators.
I want to return to 's approach, because I do believe—and I think you explained this very well, Mr. Minister, in debate in the House of Commons and again this morning with your opening comments—that although for constitutional reasons we cannot define confidence or non-confidence, or restrict it to a great extent, in the court of public opinion once this becomes law, woe befall a Prime Minister or an opposition that precipitously force an election before that date, unless they can go out and defend it to the Canadian people. So I think it will be an important step forward.
I put that forward and ask whether, in the time remaining, which is very short, you want to elaborate further on this whole business that somehow the bill should define what constitutes confidence or non-confidence, and restrict that? I think quite the contrary, that once the date is set, it would be very difficult for any Prime Minister, unless he wants to defend the reasons in public to an angry electorate.
Good afternoon, everyone. I'm accompanied today by Mrs. Diane Davidson, deputy chief electoral officer and chief legal counsel; and Mr. Rennie Molnar, senior director of operations, register, and geography.
Members of the committee may recall that when I appeared on June 13 of this year I expressed my agreement with the idea of fixed-date elections. The proposed legislation would facilitate many aspects of Elections Canada's planning and operations. On June 13, I submitted a written summary of those benefits, and I have brought copies of that document for you today. I understand they've been recirculated.
I will comment on some aspects of the proposed legislation from the perspective of electoral administration, which the committee may wish to consider. As it stands now, my office plans for general elections incrementally through the setting of regular readiness dates throughout the election cycle. The frequency of these dates is necessarily greater in minority government situations. The moment there is a majority government in power, elections on a date set by statute would enable Elections Canada to plan more securely in four-year cycles, with contingencies for delivering general elections that could still occur outside the fixed date.
There are a number of operational benefits associated with fixed election dates. For example, at the issue of the writ, returning offices could be up and running with communications technology installed and staff hired and trained. This is not small. This would allow for better service to electors, and a fixed date would also allow my office a greater advance opportunity to identify and secure locations for polling stations. This would include firm commitments for access to sites that are accessible, thus resulting in improved locations and greater convenience for electors.
Knowing the date of the election in advance would also permit targeted updates of the national register of electors, done in close consultation with members of Parliament, political parties, and electoral district associations, to be performed in the month leading up to the writ being issued. It is not automatic that we would do this, but it's a possibility. This would result in a more up-to-date preliminary list of electors for candidates at the start of the election and fewer revisions to the list during the electoral period.
Holding elections at a fixed date would also be beneficial for our outreach and education programs, as well as for our advertising, which could be implemented more effectively before and during general elections. From an operational point of view, the fall--particularly the month of October--is a good time of year to have an election. It may well be the best.
It should be noted however that should the polling date fall on the third Monday of October as proposed, this would result in the advanced polls falling on the long Thanksgiving weekend.
From 2000 to 2006, turnout at advanced polls has more than doubled, from 775,000 voters to 1,600,000. This means that such a decision would probably have a real impact.
Subsection 56.2(1) of Bill provides that the Chief Electoral Officer may, if he thinks that the polling date is not suitable, including by reason of its being in conflict with a day of cultural or religious significance or a provincial or municipal election, choose another day to recommend to the Governor in Council. Should the recommendation be accepted, the Governor in Council would have to make an order to that effect before August 1st in the year in which the general election is to be held. You're all well aware of this provision.
Currently, the Chief Electoral Officer does not have such discretion. The authority to recommend an alternate polling day could rest with Parliament directly. Further, if the date of the election has to shift beyond a Tuesday, it would be preferable to have it moved to the next day rather than the following Monday as currently proposed.
I would like to add a few words on the current advertising practices. Treasury Board already imposes a ban on certain types of government advertising during the election period. To quote from the Government of Canada Communications Policy:
Advertising is only permitted when: an institution is required by statute or regulation to issue a public notice for legal purposes; an institution must inform the public of a danger to health, safety or the environment; or an institution must post an employment or staffing notice.
The committee may wish to consider expanding the timing of this ban to four weeks before the issuance of the writ of election. It might be deemed appropriate as well to subject political parties to this restriction.
To conclude, the proposed legislation would improve our service to electors, candidates, political parties and other stakeholders.
My officials and myself will be pleased to answer your questions.
, I think one has to take into account the differences between the American system, fundamentally, and the Canadian system. We don't have a system of primaries, and that triggers a lot of what they're doing. That's why they get involved a year ahead of time, or even more, because the primaries start to set in. We don't have that.
We do know in Canada, when it's a majority government, when the election will take place, generally. We know that it will reach the third year, generally. What we didn't know, and what we still don't know, is whether it's going to be the first six months of the fourth year or the last six months in which the election will be held. And I don't think we've seen parties precipitate themselves into advertising, even though they know it's going to happen, within that six month or the 12 months. We haven't seen that, and I don't think we'll see it because we fix the election date.
I think money is an issue, but I think there are also the mores and the fact that there's not the need for primaries to be taking place. And in the United States it's also important to remember that there are gubernatorial races, and half of the Congress, or a third of the Congress, flips over as well as the presidency. And because it's a presidency, there are also a lot of differences that would make me think there is not a major issue to be addressed here, other than for what, in my view, would be four weeks before, in terms of government advertising and possibly political party advertising. Those are the only two issues.
I think that looking at the possibility of banning that for the four weeks before would be sufficient, and it's all that will be taken. There's no need to change anything about the electoral period, the amount of moneys to be spent during the period, nothing like that. Just keep that period wholly as we do it now, or whole, as we do it now.